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Beto O’Rourke faces defamation suit from Texas oil tycoon

The Democratic nominee for governor called the lawsuit frivolous and said he would continue to share the facts of the state's February 2021 electrical grid collapse with Texas voters.

(CN) — A Texas oil tycoon is accusing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke of defaming him on the campaign trail with a “relentless and malicious attack” of a $1 million political donation he made to Republican Governor Greg Abbott months after the state’s deadly winter storm.

O’Rourke, who called the lawsuit “frivolous” at news conference on Monday afternoon, won the Democratic nomination for governor last week. He has made Abbott’s handling of the state’s electrical grid collapse during the February 2021 freeze a core piece of his campaign, including claims that Abbott was paid off by Kelcy Warren, chairman of Energy Transfer, to not fix the grid.

Warren, 66, stepped down as CEO of Energy Transfer in October 2020 but remains executive chairman. The billionaire Republican donor sued O’Rourke in San Saba County state court on Feb. 18, claiming the former congressman has no basis to repeatedly state that Warren committed extortion and bribery based on a campaign contribution Warren made to Abbott four months after the state’s blackout.

Warren filed his lawsuit in San Saba County, population 5,730, where he resides. Judge Evan Stubbs, a Republican first elected in 2014, is overseeing the proceedings.

O’Rourke said in social media posts that Warren’s $1 million donation to Abbott’s campaign came after the oil pipeline company reported earnings of $2.4 billion over five days while millions of Texans shivered in their own powerless homes without running water and an electrical grid at the brink of collapse.

“Looks like a bribe to me,” O’Rourke said of Warren's donation in a Facebook live video last month.

“O’Rourke intended that his malicious and baseless defamatory statements publicly humiliate Warren and discourage others from contributing to Governor Abbott’s campaign,” Warren says in his 15-page lawsuit. “O’Rourke should be held liable for his lies and forced to pay for the damage he has caused.”

O’Rourke and Abbott are locked in a head-to-head matchup for the governor’s mansion after both candidates easily beat out their multiple challengers in their primary races March 1.

Abbott has tied O’Rourke to national Democrats unpopular in parts of Texas and has repeatedly slammed him as too liberal for the state that hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1990. O’Rourke sees momentum in his attacks over the fallout of last year’s winter storm and Abbott’s support of controversial laws recently passed in the Republican-controlled Legislature, including the state’s ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

“The power grid – maybe you’ve heard of it?” O’Rourke said at a San Antonio meet-and-greet in January to jeering in the crowd.

“Instead of listening to the experts or to any of us, he listened to his donors, those willing to cut million-dollar checks to prevent any regulation or oversight or cost to them or their bottom line,” he said.

O’Rourke told reporters on Monday that he began receiving letters from Warren’s attorneys in February telling him “to back off this story,” but chose not to.

“Not only is he trying to influence the political process through the campaign donations he is making, not only did he make illegal windfall profits off the suffering, misery and death of our fellow Texans, he’s now trying to shut us down in the courts through a frivolous lawsuit,” O’Rourke said.

“We feel very, very good about obviously the facts underlying the things I’ve said along the way,” he added.

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